CAPSULE: This is a finely-tuned, horrific ghost story, adapted from the novel by Susan Hill. Director James Watkins makes this an almost perfect ghost story. He had nothing he had no message to send, no comedy to add, and no 3D or CGI to show off. He orchestrates the film nearly perfectly so that it does just what a ghost story should do, no more and no less. He wanted only to make an unabashed atmospheric ghost story to make the viewers' skin crawl. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There is a relatively new production company, dating only to 2007, calling itself "Hammer Film Productions". That was the name of the fondly remembered production company that made a name for itself making low-budget quality horror and science fiction films in late 1950s and the 1960s. The new Hammer has even taken images from the original Hammer's films as part of their logo. Now I am hearing people saying that this new production company is not really a descended from the original Hammer. So far I have seen their two biggest productions to date, LET ME IN and THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Frankly I do not care if they really are or are not the original Hammer. They are making movies in the best tradition of Hammer Films. They are not in the same style, but they are solid genre films made intelligently to make the most of a smallish budget. That is the best tradition of the original Hammer. Even if they only bought the name, they are doing well by it. And their current offering THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a good example of the Hammer tradition.
The Hammer film is just one of several dramatic adaptations there have been of Susan Hill's 1983 novel. On the stage it is the second-longest-running play ever in London's West End, having played since 1987. (I include a review of that play with this review.) There was a dramatic version made for BBC Television in 1989. Unlike the Hammer version, the BBC TV version is done With considerably less subtlety in the visual images, but it is also an effective horror film that deserves wider exposure. There was also a BBC Radio version serialized in four half-hour chapters. Each of these has to solve different problems in how the horror is communicated to the mind of the viewer. The BBC TV version goes so far as to shake the ghost in the face of the viewer, while the Hammer has more subtlety and does more with quick flashes. These visual approaches would be impossible for the stage play, which relies more on sudden loud noises--a scream or a slamming door-- coming unexpectedly in a darkened theater. This does not work well since inserting startling noises is not really the same thing as genuinely inducing fear.
The new film version of THE WOMAN IN BLACK is notable for what it does not do as well as what it does do. There are only a handful of film ghost stories that really are just ghost stories. Some feel obliged to break the tension with gratuitous comic relief or throw in a romance. Some use excessive art design or end up with a cheap look. Some have heavy CGI effects or just give in to overkill or throw in a crime plot. Maintaining the dark atmosphere is just beyond some directors' abilities. Director James Watkins's adaptation based on Jane Goldman's screenplay is a horrific ghost thriller and tries to be nothing else. And it works.
Daniel Radcliffe, twenty-two years old, has played only one film role other than Harry Potter since that series began--he was in the film THE DECEMBER BOYS (2007)--so he is fresh from that series. With the exception of his bright blue, piercing eyes he strikes one as having a rather bland face. That is just about right for his role here as Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor in Edwardian England and a very young widower. Already failing in his career, Kipps is given the unpleasant assignment of settling the estate of the late Alice Drablow. Drablow lived in Eel Marsh House on an island in-- what else?--Eel Marsh. The land is empty and the house is creepy from the very beginning. It is accessible only by a causeway and is cut off from the mainland at high tide. A village nearby can be reached only at low tide. Visiting it, he discovers that locals do not like Eel Marsh House and he is warned to stay away from the house and that he cannot even stay at the inn. (Hey, would it be a Hammer film without an inhospitable innkeeper somewhere?) Local Sam Daily (played by Ciar n Hinds) does befriend Kipps. Daily does not believe the superstitious stories about Eel Marsh Housel. Kipps sets to work finding legal papers in the house. He had been told he would be alone in the house, but he keeps hearing noises and then even sees a strange woman dressed as if in mourning. Soon he also hears about a rash of child suicides in the area. Are they connected to the house and its past?
This is not a film to throw a lot of scary CGI at the audience. I am told that Watkins steadfastly refused to make THE WOMAN IN BLACK in 3D. The film has a long slow start to get the acclimated to the dark and the dank and dead atmosphere. There a few false jump scenes, too many really, that do not advance the story, but are intended to make the viewer jumpy. And soon there are enough real jolts to "satisfy" the viewer, if "satisfy" is the right word. Watkins knows how to make his viewers' skin crawl as the weird becomes sinister. I rate THE WOMAN IN BLACK a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
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I attach below my comments on the British stage play "The Woman in Black"
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (London stage play by Stephen Mallatratt)
What would you do if you had a good ghost story to tell? It is a Victorian ghost story, perhaps the sort of story that an M. R. James might have written. In this case the story is taken from a novel by Susan Hill. Still, there are not very great financial possibilities for a short punchy ghost story. Stephen Mallatratt saw the possibilities of putting the story on the stage as a modest three-person play. It has apparently run for some sixteen years on London's West End.
As if the strictures of reducing a story to a few short scenes to be done on a stage were not enough to limit what can be done, the story is padded out. We are not simply told the story. We are told that years after the events the main character, solicitor Arthur Kipps, of the story feels compelled to tell the story to his family and friends. Absurdly enough he has rented a theater for this purpose and wants to tell his family as a dramatic reading. And he is not very good at dramatic reading. Recognizing that his telling of the story is insufficiently impressive, he has hired a dramatic coach to help him present effectively. The coach suggests he not just to tell the story but to dramatize it. The coach shows him how to do it not just by explaining but by showing him how taking the part of the man at a much younger age. The story then unfolds as a story within a story.
As with any good ghost story the less said about the content the better. I will not say much about the central story except that it involves a house out on a dreary moor, strange noises at night, and the spectral appearance of the mysterious lady of the title.
If one were staging BEN HUR (as has been done), one would need to somehow represent an entire exciting chariot race on the stage (as has been done). The demands of a good ghost story are far less difficult. Ghosts are scary and they do not have to do very much to frighten an audience. To an audience who has been prepared by the actors a door that mysteriously slams, a scream in the night, a light that turns on mysteriously can be as effective as they are economical to produce.
Why the play needs the framing sequence I can only guess. The sequence is really more about how to tell a story on a stage than it is about the central story. The framing sequence participates only minimally in the horror. It seems almost to be filler, though it does set up the story.
Overall I would say this is an effective play, and its long life seems to attest to that being the case. It is a testament to an audience's ability to suspend disbelief and be pulled into a good scary story.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper